Businessman, political activist. During his long career, Roger Milliken has built his family’s textile business into a burgeoning textile corporation known for its innovative management, technological prowess, and clamlike secretiveness. Milliken has also played a major role in South Carolina’s transition to Republican dominance, supporting conservative issues and candidates around the state and the nation.
Milliken was born on October 24, 1915, in New York, the son of Gerrish Milliken and Agnes Gayley. By the time of Roger’s birth, the textile company his grandfather Seth had started in 1865 in Portland, Maine, Deering Milliken Company, had grown into a multistate business, including operations in South Carolina. In 1939, two years after graduating from Yale with a degree in French history, Roger joined the family company. He married Justine Van Rensselaer Hooper on June 5, 1948, and they eventually had five children.
In June 1947 Gerrish Milliken died, leaving Roger in charge of the company. Roger Milliken soon moved to Spartanburg and also started to concentrate the company’s operations in the South Carolina Piedmont. A man of endless energy, Milliken turned Deering Milliken into one of the biggest and most successful textile corporations in the United States. Industry analysts have widely complimented Deering Milliken’s (in 1976 renamed Milliken & Company) effective use of the latest technological and managerial advances. In a business often known for its conservative management style and technological foot-dragging, Milliken & Company’s research and development and managerial methods have rewarded the company with the reputation as perhaps the most innovative and dynamic textile corporation in America. Milliken is particularly known for his pioneering work in inventory management.
Milliken has willingly discussed his company’s quality management with outsiders, but otherwise he protects both his personal and his company’s privacy with a hermitlike determination. The company’s ownership remains in the hands of Milliken and his relatives, enabling Milliken to maintain a powerful control over all company-related information, including the size and scope of its operations. Common estimates of Milliken& Company’s annual sales have amounted to between $2 billion and $3 billion. According to Forbes,
Milliken’s personal wealth climbed to $1 billion in 1987, and in the succeeding fifteen years the estimates of his wealth ranged between $580 million and $1.4 billion, making Milliken the richest man in South Carolina by a comfortable margin.
In addition to his business career, Milliken has taken an active role in the conservative politics of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and the nation. Soon after relocating in South Carolina, Milliken participated in building the Republican Party in the state, offering the party his energy, leadership, and deep pockets. From 1956 to 1984 he served as a South Carolina delegate to the Republican National Convention. In addition to helping the GOP in South Carolina, he promoted conservative causes and individuals around the nation. In the early 1960s Milliken was one of the king-makers behind Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaigns. However, Milliken’s benevolence has not been limited to political causes. He has been an active and civic-minded citizen of Spartanburg, supporting local pro bono issues and institutions with his advice and sizable checks.
Milliken’s convictions and support for conservative causes run deep and wide. In 1956 he closed down a factory in Darlington after its workers voted to unionize. After a twenty-four-year legal dispute, the courts ordered Milliken to pay $5 million as back pay to the workers affected by the closing. Upset over Xerox company’s sponsorship of a 1967 civil rights documentary with allegedly liberal bias, Milliken ordered all Xerox copiers removed from his company’s facilities. In 1954 Milliken provided the largest individual contribution—$20,000—to William F. Buckley to get his magazine National Review started. Milliken was one of the early contributors to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative, Washington, D.C.–based think tank. Milliken’s convictions run so deep that he is known to have ignored possible business opportunities with both Chinese communists and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Milliken has consistently supported candidates who share his conservative values and promise to protect American textile industries from foreign competition. Since the 1980s this protectionist stance has put Milliken occasionally at odds with some of the Republican political leadership and led to his increased support of third-party movements and antiglobalization activists such as Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and even Ralph Nader. Milliken was a powerful force in the fights against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) tariff reductions. However, he has also expanded his company’s operations abroad and has run his factories with foreign machinery since the 1960s. Milliken’s decision to invite foreign textile machinery companies to locate in Spartanburg in the early 1960s was one of the key decisions leading to the rapid internationalization of the Piedmont’s industrial landscape.
Davenport, Jim. “In S.C., There’s Roger and US.” Columbia State, March 2, 1992, business sec., pp. 6–7, 16.
“How Roger Milliken Runs Textiles’ Premier Performer.” Business Week ( January 19, 1981): 62–65, 68, 73.
Lizza, Ryan. “Silent Partner.” New Republic 222 (January 10, 2000): 22–25.
Lunan, Bert, and Robert A. Pierce. Legacy of Leadership. Columbia: South Carolina Business Hall of Fame, 1999.
Monk, John. “The Last Textile Giant.” Columbia State, October 7, 2001, pp. D1, D4–D5.